If you are around me for very long, you’ll grow weary of me fawning over Narcissus. But there’s a reason the poor Greek lad ended up in a narcotic stupor. They have that effect on some of us. It wouldn’t be spring without them. I wouldn’t be me without them. The first flowers of spring are loved throughout the world and those in the Narcissus genus just happen to be my love.
A number of years ago I read something called “The Daffodil Principle” about Gene Bauer’s beautiful and expansive Running Springs daffodil garden in California. The article related that there was a poster at the garden that read: “Answers to questions I know you are asking.” “50 thousand bulbs.” “One at a time, by one woman. Two hands, two feet, and very little brain.” “Began in 1958.” The “daffodil principle” of getting big things done by starting on them and continuously working on them stuck in my mind, especially when it came to a number of large naturalized Narcissus plantings that I’ve witnessed in my life.
This came to light after the Smith County Master Gardener bulb sale committee came to visit my spring bulb plantings last spring. Several of them asked, “Did you plant all these by yourself?” Yes, I did; one bulb at a time. Thankfully I learned at an early age which ones grew, multiplied, and bloomed well without any additional soil prep, fertilizing, watering, spraying, or dividing. Once I put them in the ground, the plan is for them to outlive me.
Most of my plantings consist of heirloom species and cultivars that I’ve propagated over the years. My prolific stalwarts include Narcissus jonquilla (sweeties), Narcissus x intermedius (Texas star jonquils), Narcissus x odorus (campernelle jonquils), Narcissus pseudonarcissus (lent lilies), Narcissus pseudonarcissus telamonius plenus (scrambled eggs), Narcissus x incomparabilis (nonesuch daffodil), Narcissus x incomparabilis aurantius plenus (butter and eggs), Narcissus x italicus (Italian narcissus), and Narcissus tazetta ‘Grand Primo’ (Grand Primo narcissus). I also grow some proven more modern ones like ‘February Gold,’ ‘Fortune,’ and ‘Ice Follies.’ Almost everything I grow falls into the early or early-mid season category because they fit our mild winters, early springs, and hot summers better.
I’ve always liked daffodils, narcissus, and jonquils, but never truly went cuckoo over them until I saw large seemingly “naturalized” plantings. I say seemingly, because most of the varieties that do well here are sterile and don’t set seed; so technically can’t naturalize like a wildflower and spread by seed. The exceptions are sweeties and lent lilies which can slowly seed out on their own to form beautiful drifts.
All the spectacular scenes that I’ve seen during my life were planted by hand; one bulb at a time. Beautiful large plantings are sights to behold. The first I ever saw was at Mr. Butler’s place in the rural countryside in North Louisiana. Next was Cousin Celia’s magical place also in North Louisiana. Then there was Thera Lou Adam’s bulb field in Central Louisiana. Most recently, it was my friend Dawn Stover’s “Jonquil Hill” at SFA Gardens in Nacogdoches. And of course, there’s Mrs. Lee’s in Gladewater. And in between it was hundreds of sites along both country roads and interstates in Texas and the South. Many of these plantings along the highway were spread by dozers when the roads were constructed. All those in pastures are left over from old homesites.
When I dig and divide my bulbs, I always put the largest blooming bulbs back into the same hole they came from and only take the excess divisions to spread around. Many old bulb clumps have 50-100 bulbs in them so all the blooming sized bulbs can be put right back where they were with the others being planted about. My goal is to have a clump of bulbs on every square foot. I’ve seen many a specialized bulb digger and auger. But guess what? Every single bulb out of the thousands I’ve planted is just poked into the ground with a quick stab and wedge of a sharpshooter shovel.
I start by digging the entire clump generally in full bloom or when it’s just fading and gently separating all the bulbs. After placing 1-3 of the largest blooming sized ones back into the original hole, I place all the others in a five-gallon bucket of water so the roots don’t dry out. I then just drift around the original clump (or into a new area entirely) and quickly stick them into crevices in the soil I’ve wedged open with my trusty sharp shooter. I step on the edge one time with my shoe to seal it in, paying no attention whatsoever to its depth, other than brown down and green up. The worst thing that can happen by moving them in full bloom is that they might not bloom next year.
Yes, they only bloom for a few weeks each spring. But remember, they don’t require water, fertilizer, or pampering and get better each year of your entire life and beyond, if you choose the right varieties. This is critical because many popular, large-flowered, showy daffodils only bloom for a few years then make foliage forever. It also helps that these bulbs and anything else in the amaryllis family are rodent proof, deer proof, and cattle proof. And many of them smell heavenly to boot.
If you want to learn more about easy-to-grow, long lived bulbs in East Texas, be sure to attend the Smith County Master Gardeners’ award-winning Earth-Kind Bulbs to Blooms Conference and Sale each year at Harvey Hall. They work hard to sell heirloom, hardy, and hard-to-find bulbs each October. A number of the bulbs sold come from my own farm. Proceeds from the sale help support the Tyler Botanical Garden at the Tyler Rose Garden where many of the bulbs are displayed as well as other educational activities of the Smith County Master Gardener Association. You can follow the group on Facebook at “Smith County Master Gardeners” or visit their website at txmg.org/smith
Greg Grant is the Smith County Horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and coordinator of the Smith County Master Gardeners. He is author of Texas Fruit and Vegetable Gardening, Heirloom Gardening in the South, and The Rose Rustlers. You can read his “Greg’s Ramblings” blog at arborgate.com, read his “In Greg’s Garden” in each issue of Texas Gardener magazine (texasgardener.com), and follow him on Facebook at “Greg Grant Gardens.” More science-based lawn and gardening information from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service can be found at aggieturf.tamu.edu and aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu